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The Greatest of These is Love

First Published JCF Newsletter September 2016

By DANNY KOPP

Chuck Kopp, Chairman of Jerusalem Cornerstone Foundation, retired at the end of May from his position as Senior Pastor of Narkis St. Congregation in Jerusalem after 24 years.  Charles Martin Kopp was born in Barranquilla, Colombia on May 14, 1948, the same day that the State of Israel was birthed.  Chuck first came to Israel in 1959 on a six month ministry trip with his parents and sister.  At the age of 18, Chuck moved to Israel in 1966 and has lived here ever since, marrying Liz and together raising seven children.  Besides pastoring, Chuck has headed his family’s Cornerstone Ministries and helped lead the Evangelical Alliance of Israel (EAI) during the last three decades.   

This is an abridgment of a sermon given by his son, Danny Kopp, at Chuck Kopp’s retirement service on June 4, 2016.

My Dad has always been his own harshest critic.  I can’t count the number of times Dad had delivered the sermon and then on a Saturday evening, the family would sit around the dinner table, often with guests present, and brutally pick apart the bits we liked and the parts we didn’t, like vultures over freshly fallen prey.  As he subjected himself to this wrenching exercise, he’d also ask for constructive criticism.  That did sometimes soften the blows.  After all, what use is there in tearing down if you can’t at least suggest a positive alternative.

He taught us no one was above reproach. He doesn’t so much say that in words, but growing up, there was no higher authority than Dad and if he was open to criticism, no one was immune. Of course, we liked to practice our ritual of picking apart each and every aspect of church, including when other people spoke as well. But Dad is much quicker to come to other people’s defense and even play the devil’s advocate for people he might disagree with, just to make sure they’ve had a fair hearing. And in this he taught us empathy. Again, not in a word, not as a rule necessarily, but in practice.

Empathy is a close cousin of curiosity, and this is another quality my Dad has in droves. He is deeply inquisitive about the world, about history, and about people.  He has not just an intellectual curiosity—which he certainly has—but a personal interest in the biographical details of people’s lives. This is important, because when it came to being a pastor and tending to people’s needs, Dad put less stock in providing formulaic solutions to problems than in simply being available to people.

Hundreds and hundreds of people have come through our home over my lifetime for all kinds of reasons, sometimes just as dinner guests and sometimes to stay for days or weeks or months at a time. My memories of dinnertimes with those people are of my Dad asking so many questions of our guests’ background, country, languages, politics, religious beliefs, family relations, that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were being interrogated. God help you if you come from somewhere interesting where they speak an obscure language, because my Dad would pull out the maps and his famous book that records the first few verses in the book of John in every single language and dialect that the New Testament has been translated into.

The point is, Dad has always genuinely been interested in people, their stories and their lives, and not in using every opportunity to show off about the wonderful job he does as a pastor or as a head of this or that organization. In fact, to this day, he has told frustratingly little about his childhood and other parts of his past that we are in the dark about. Dad doesn’t do a good job selling himself.  After I worked for a public relations firm in Washington DC, and I saw the various methods, from the mildly manipulative to the grotesquely devious that nearly every entity ultimately employs, be they a commercial company, a government ministry, or a church, I came to value all the more my Dad’s failure at self-promotion.

Another close relative of empathy and curiosity is humility. Humility comes in many forms, and anyone who knows my Dad knows he likes to collaborate and defer to others if it will help the cause. He is always looking to widen the circle, even if it costs him his seat. Obviously, the fact that this pulpit has such a variety of different speakers in it almost every single Shabbat, is a result of that deference and spirit of cooperation. But it comes from a recognition that there is no monopoly on the truth. That sounds like a good thing to say, right? “We don’t know everything” – who wouldn’t be able to sign on to that?  But it includes a recognition that the truth looks different from different perspectives; that others may have aspects of the truth that I don’t; that what I know may be incorrect in parts, or incomplete. Paul said that – “For we know in part… (I Cor 13:9).”

You know, preparing for this talk, I was trying to think of anecdotes that would epitomize my Dad as a pastor from my perspective. And the thing I kept coming back to, the thing I appreciate now most, more than anything else, was our longwinded arguments that at their apex could last well into the middle of the night, even if there was school the next day. It almost didn’t matter what the subject was—theological, political, a combination of the two – it was always absolutely critical that they be resolved. It was also a bit of a sport. Indeed, some kids watch sports with their dads, I watched Popolitika with my Dad (which for those who don’t watch Israeli TV, Popolitika is a political talk show that sometimes resembles a wrestling match more than a dialogue).  

We talked a lot about faith. And ironically, at times when I was in a crisis of faith, among the most comforting, liberating things he could say was, “I don’t know.”  Just that, “I don’t know.”  The thing is, I think that, like most of us, I’d had the notion drilled into me that whatever problem you have, God will always provide an answer. And the corollary to that, was that if you haven’t received an answer from God, you might not be praying hard, or long, or correctly enough; or there might even be something wrong with your life hindering clear communication from God. For my Dad, who from my perspective as a teenager had reached the pinnacle, in so many ways, spiritually, to confide that perfection was unattainable, was an immense consolation and a relief.  Perfection is unattainable—that’s obvious. Let me rephrase that.  “There will be times when you will look for God and you won’t find him, and that’s okay. There will be times when you seek a resolution to your problem and you will not receive a satisfactory answer, and that’s okay.”

And it’s okay because our faith is founded not on magical experiences. Even if they occur, those are merely icing on the cake. Paul says we only know “in part” and that “for now we see in a mirror, dimly”. And that’s okay. “Where there is knowledge, it will vanish”. But what is the one thing that never fails? Love. Not hippie, feel-good, spiritual ecstasy stuff. This is how Paul describes love. He has a list, but listen to his first descriptor: “Love suffers long…and is kind.”  Suffers long!  That’s my Dad.  He suffered whiny, difficult teenagers.  I understand his marriage was rough the first few years.  I don’t know, I wasn’t there.

But here’s the rest, “love does not envy; love does not parade itself”. Does not parade itself? How are people supposed to know your ministry is doing well unless you advertise it and parade well?

Love “is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity.”  These are all passive; things that love does not do. Again, the unobvious wisdom and power that can come in a concession—like admitting, “I don’t know.”

And what are the positive, pro-active aspects of this love Paul is talking about? Well, he says, “I can be the most eloquent, dynamic, charismatic and persuasive speaker you’ve ever heard, but without love it’s all just noise. And I could tell you exactly when a future War of Armageddon is going to take place, when Jesus is coming back; I could have a successful healing ministry like Chuck’s father, E. Paul Kopp, but without love I would be absolutely useless. I could also have an amazing charity organization in which I die in a heroic attempt to deliver aid to refugees in Syria, but without love I am essentially a big fat zero.”

On the other hand, love “rejoices in the truth.”  You know, that partial, dimly lit truth that, just as often, resides with others.  So basically, when all else has failed, you fall back on a love that stands up, and despite everything, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Dad is the seventh generation in a line of ministers, pastors, and evangelists. And I know he may have measured himself at times against his father’s—my grandfather’s—legacy as an evangelist who travelled all over the world, or that of my great-grandfather who pastored a hugely successful church and produced a Christian radio program for years in Los Angeles. But my grandfather also left his family for months at a time and it was often difficult to have a conversation with him that did not somehow return to the subject of his healing ministry. I have some fundamental questions about his decisions regarding family and ministry and priorities. But as for my Dad, I think he mostly got those priorities right, and most importantly I don’t have a doubt in my mind that he loves his family.

In the city of Jerusalem which is full of sounding brass and clanging cymbals, it is my entirely subjective and biased assessment that my Dad helped foster a loving environment at Narkis Street Congregation similar to my family’s. I think here at Narkis, we might not have all the answers or do everything right, but we like a good argument and we accept you as you are.  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.